Are Cruise Line Bar Prices Too High?
Written by: David Beers
By Dave Beers (CruiseReviews Editor)
One of the top questions asked on any cruise website is about drink prices on cruise ships. This usually leads to questions about sneaking alcoholic beverages aboard, with two main camps being predominant. One side claims the cruise line prices are not affordable for them and even buying a couple drinks per day would stress their budget. The other side simply wants to drink heavily and do it as cheaply as possible. There is also a smaller faction, who say they simply want to have a bottle in their cabin for pre-dinner drinks.
I really don’t want to get into the smuggling debate. I am an “obey the rules” kind of guy so I don’t break cruise line rules regarding bringing personal beverages aboard. If you do, then you do so at your own peril. It’s between you, the cruise line, and perhaps your conscience. I just wouldn’t run around telling everyone about it if I did sneak booze aboard.
Anyway, after my last cruise I got to thinking about the bar prices and decided to look at them over the past few years and how they have increased. Bar and large, drink prices are the same across the mainstream cruise lines. Variances are not significant.
Gimme A Beer
I’ll only talk about domestic brands of beer. When I first started paying attention to cruise ship bar prices, a 12 ounce can of beer was sold for around $3. This price stayed pretty much stagnant for several years, maybe increasing 25 cents every two or three years. Since the 15% tip is standard across most lines, I’ll exclude it so things don’t get confusing. Thus when I bought a can of Budweiser on a ship in 2001 it was $3.00 and when I bought one in 2006 it was $3.75. Not exactly cheap, but in line with typical hotel or resort prices.
Enter The 16 Ounce Bottle
A few years ago cruise lines threw a new variable into the beer equation. 16 ounce plastic and aluminum bottles started showing up more and more at cruise ship bars, along with much higher prices. Was it a convenient way to jack up prices, by muddling things with a larger serving? Let’s look.
16 ounce prices have more variation than did the 12 ounce cans. On my recent Carnival cruise, Anheuser-Busch products sold for $5.75 a serving, whereas those in plastic bottles such as Miller Lite and Coors were $4.95. Given that a couple brands still sold in 12 ounce cans were $4.50 the Coors and Miller Lite were comparatively good deals. But in reality even the $5.75 bottle of Bud was cheaper per ounce than that in the 12 ounce can. The can is 38 cents per ounce. The larger bottles ranged from 31 to 36 cents per ounce. But then, do most people really want a larger serving? Order a bucket of four 16 ounce bottles and you get $2 off, so for $21 you get a half-gallon of beer. Party time!
I live in Alabama which has some of the highest prices for alcoholic beverages in the nation. It isn’t scientific, but let’s say that as Alabama prices go, so goes the rest of the country. For at least the past 20 years, a case of Budweiser has cost pretty much the same at local stores. It was $16 dollars in 1990 and in today’s newpaper ads I can get that case of Bud for $17 at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store. So is it safe to say that wholesale prices have been similarly steady? I think so.
Mixed Drinks & Wine
My favorite drink is a Barcardi & Coke, and when I’m feeling noble I like a martini. That rum and Coke currently goes for $5.75, and the martini can run from $6.50 to $10 depending on which gin or vodka you want. These prices don’t seem to have risen as much over the years, at least when compared to those cruise ship beers. As I recall, that rum and Coke cost me $4.25 in 2005, and the martini was $5.25. Meanwhile, at the Alabama ABC Store (we have ridiculously ancient liquor laws) the state charges me $22 for a 1.75 liter bottle of Barcardi light rum.
Wine prices on ships are similar to liquor, at least by the glass. It can be hard to swallow paying $30 for a bottle of chardonnay on a ship that sells for $10 at my local Texaco station (a surprising selection of wines). But you can get a nice glass of wine on a ship for $7 to $10. These seem much the same as what I paid in 2004 at the wine bar on the Mariner Of The Seas.
Cruise lines have quietly raised bar prices over the past few years when I think their wholesale prices have not changed much. If my retail prices haven’t changed in years, why should I think the cruise lines are paying more for their stock? Thus they are getting more profit out of each beer or cocktail they sell. Was this a reaction to cruise fares being flat, and having to find income someplace else? Perhaps.
However there is a limit to what people will pay for a drink. When I add the 15% tip into that $5.75 Bud, it is $6.61. That is getting into uncomfortable territory for many cruisers. My observations are that cruise line bar prices are now increasing every year, and sometimes more than once during a year.
My view is if this trend continues it cannot be sustained by the typical passenger on many mainstream lines. I don’t see how drink prices can increase much further without it becoming a deal breaker for many people. It has already led to increased smuggling, a market for specialized smuggling containers, all of which leads to more draconian rules and luggage inspections by cruise lines. Many passengers will only be squeezed so far and at some point the cruise lines will have to look at other ways to generate revenue.
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